This article does not deal with the question of maximizing nutritional value through appropriate cookware, but only discusses which types of cookware are likely to be safe to use. Remember, however, that’s only half the battle. Using any type of cookware in a way that destroys vitamins, minerals and other important ingredients in the food you ingest is not likely to bring your family the health benefits they deserve.
Non-stick cookware, long considered one of the great culinary advancements of the 20th century, has major drawbacks. Last month, a study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine linked chemicals in nonstick pans to high cholesterol in children. Other multiple studies have shown that at high temperatures teflon, the chemical used in the original nonstick pans, can be lethal to animals and cause flu-like symptoms in humans. How hot the pan needs to be to cause illness is still up for debate.
Aluminum pots and pans have been all but phased out of most home kitchens, since studies show such cookware may be linked with Alzheimer’s disease. Yet every single chef and restaurant owner I spoke to in researching this article still used them in their restaurant.
How you store your food has been called into question as well. A 2008 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association showed a connection between Bisphenol A and health risks such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, neurological disorders, early puberty in females, and diabetes. Bisphenol A is commonly known BPA, and is a chemical found in plastics that are used most notably for food storage containers and baby bottles.
A joint study conducted by 38 experts concluded that the levels of BPA found in the average person are higher than those that cause harm to animals in lab experiments. For two years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration disputed the validity of these reports and insisted that BPA in plastic was safe for everyday use. However a few months ago, the FDA made a complete reversal and released a statement with a new message: “On the basis of results from recent studies using novel approaches to test for subtle effects, both the National Toxicology Program and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and young children. The FDA is taking reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA in the food supply. These steps include: supporting the industry’s actions to stop producing BPA-containing baby bottles and infant feeding cups for the U.S. market; facilitating the development of alternatives to BPA for the linings of infant formula cans; and supporting efforts to replace BPA or minimize BPA levels in other food can linings.”
What to look out for
So now we know that we should avoid plastic that contains BPA. But what about all the other chemicals in the plastics we use on a daily basis? On the bottom of most plastic bottles and containers is a recycling code (the numbers one through seven) which helps guide you.
Plastic #1: Commonly found in soda bottles, cooking-oil bottles, and peanut-butter containers. This type of plastic is safe if used just once, however it should never be rinsed out and used a second time.
Plastic #2: Commonly found in milk containers and whipped butter tubs. This type of plastic has no known health hazards.
Plastic #3: Polyvinyl chloride often referred to as PVC. This is one of the more dangerous forms of plastic because it contains chlorine, which releases toxins when it gets too warm.
Plastic #4: Commonly found in food storage containers and grocery bags. This type of plastic has no known health hazards.
Plastic #5: Commonly found in baby bottles, bottle caps and straws. Early studies show that it is safer for cold liquids than for hot, as high temperatures may cause chemicals in the plastic to leach into food or beverages.
Plastic #6: Commonly known as styrofoam. It has been proven that this type of plastic is not a food-safe product. It can cause eye, respiratory and skin irritation, kidney disorders, and depression. For many years it was used to create egg cartons, disposable plates, and take out containers. We now know that it can leach toxins into food and should be avoided.
Plastic #7: Contains the controversial chemical, BPA, and should be avoided. It had been used for decades to make food storage containers, plastic silverware, plastic “sippy” cups, and baby bottles and its use has not been completely phased out yet by manufacturers.
What should you be using to cook and store your food in?
At home, as opposed to in their restaurants because of economic factors, many eco-conscious local chefs are replacing their old cookware with “greener” products. Several new brands of pots and pans on the market offer a similar nonstick surface while avoiding harmful chemicals. After testing several of these new cookware lines, I found that the Starfrit line sold at Wal-Mart was hands down my favorite and all of the chefs I spoke to who had tried it agreed. It is made of sustainable, non-toxic materials, and has every feature that traditional nonstick has.
When shopping for cookware at garage sales as many of us do, stick with the materials that have been used for centuries; cast iron (which actually has health benefits), enameled cast iron, stainless steel and copper (which reduces your carbon footprint by shortening cooking times).
As for food storage, the easy answer is to avoid plastics altogether and go with glass. It has its downside, being heavier to carry and more likely to break, but I find that the peace of mind it gives me is worth the hassle.
Cooking should be fun, and we shouldn’t have to be experts in environmental engineering to put a healthy meal on the table. If you want to keep it simple, use the materials your grandparents used, use plastic in moderation and don’t forget to eat your vegetables.
Jessica Alfreds' food blog can be found at www.jessicaalfreds.com.